“Can You Explain Roy Cohn’s Psyche?”

My evil cousin was Donald Trump's first—maybe only—teacher.

Posted Sep 23, 2019

IMDB
Source: IMDB

By David L. Marcus

“Americans have short attention spans,” Roy Cohn told me when I asked why allegations about his vicious tactics as a lawyer didn’t stick to him or his infamous clients. He intuitively understood our national ADHD before anyone even uttered the phrase.

Roy knew that the media and the public don’t usually have the time or the interest to dig into complex matters. He made that remark in 1986, when he insisted he was suffering from “liver cancer.” Six months later, he died of complications from AIDS.

As a journalist—and as Roy’s cousin—I’ve been trying, and often failing, to explain Roy Marcus Cohn since the late 1970s and early  1980s. That’s when Roy was teaching Donald Trump the dark arts of politics, and representing the owners of Studio 54, and counseling everyone from New York Archbishop Cardinal Terence Cooke to Mafia boss Carmine Galante.

Roy was my father’s first cousin, my cousin once removed (almost everyone in my family wished he’d be permanently removed). I shadowed Roy for a magazine story when I was a journalist. I first got to know him when I was a student at Brown University writing a paper about the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Those hearings, broadcast live on all three networks in 1954, were the original reality TV show. Roy, because of a personal vendetta, had attacked the Army. The Army fought back, and in the process ruined Roy’s dour, lonely boss, Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican.

Today there is a resurgence in interest in Roy Cohn. A documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, the top box office film this past weekend, is now playing to sold-out theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Next week, HBO will premiere Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story. My relatives and I are interviewed in both films.

“Can you explain Roy Cohn’s psyche?” a woman called out during a discussion at a screening of Where’s My Roy Cohn? a couple of days ago.  

Director Matt Tyrnauer summoned me to the podium. The answer, I said, is complicated.

Roy Cohn was Jewish but attacked Jews. He was gay but publicly denounced “homosexual perverts.” He praised family values but never married. He prided himself on exercising and taking care of his body, yet he had wanton sexual encounters with scores of partners.

He was a lawyer who put his reputation on the line to get husband-and-wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg sent to the electric chair for spying for the Soviet Union. (More than a few pundits will argue Roy’s legacy was leaving us someone who provides intelligence to Russia and is called “Mr. President.”)

Roy’s tactics—shared with a young real estate developer named Trump—can be summarized like this: 1) Never admit you’re wrong. 2) If they attack you, counterattack viciously. 3) When you’re in trouble, distract and divert attention.

Roy was the product of a marriage that was more of a business venture than a connection based on love and mutual respect. Their business, first, was rising through New York City society and, second, raising their only child. Roy’s father, Albert Cohn, was a judge.  His mother, Dora Marcus, was a member of a family that made a fortune and then lost it.

Raised in the Bronx and eager to make it in Manhattan, Al Cohn was aloof—like another father from the outer boroughs, Frederick Trump. Dora was an unhappy, socially anxious woman, according to my grandmother, who was her sister. 

Roy was a small, ugly boy, a  misfit. As a child he had a prodigious memory and an uncanny ability not just to talk to adults but to treat them as equals. Legend—apparently true—has it that he fixed his first parking ticket when he was in high school, for a teacher. Roy graduated from Columbia University Law School at age 20, so young that he wasn’t yet eligible to take the New York State Bar exam.

Cohn knew early on that he was gay, but in the 1930s and 1940s, being openly gay was tantamount to giving up on any ambitions in law and politics. Roy lived with his mother until she died, and by then he was in his 40s. Dora insisted on telling anyone who would listen that Roy was on the verge of getting married but that it was difficult to find a woman who was smart, charming, and beautiful enough for him.

Here’s a key to understanding Roy: My grandfather Bernard Marcus—Roy’s uncle—was president of Bank of United States.  It expanded quickly during the boom times of the 1920s because immigrants on the Lower East Side and then across New York trusted a bank that was run by an immigrant family. But when the Crash of 1929 came, there was a run on the family bank. The Rockefellers, the Morgans, the others in New York’s elite business class all refused to help Bernie, the upstart Jewish banker. He ended up being sent to prison. 

As a child, Roy visited his uncle Bernie in Sing Sing. That searing experience made Roy distrustful of the Establishment even as he tried to penetrate it. The experience also left him hungry for fame, for power, for the approbation of others. 

How can we plumb the psyche of a man who despised weakness in others (and himself)? An attention-seeker who never could get enough attention? How to understand someone who was so self-centered that he was almost incapable of empathy and love? I told the audience at the movie theater that I’ve been puzzling over this for four decades. Now, with Roy’s prize student in the White House, we’re all trying to answer these questions. 

David L. Marcus is the author of two books on education and parentingWhat It Takes to Pull Me Through (Houghton Mifflin) and Acceptance (Penguin Press). He can be can be found at www.DaveMarcus.com.